LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May faced hostility on all sides and an open threat of a leadership challenge from a leading Brexiteer MP, crippling her efforts to sell her Brexit deal to the House of Commons and the wider British public and threatening her grip on power.
The prime minister, who secured Cabinet agreement for the plan on Wednesday evening, only for her Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab to resign on Thursday morning, insisted the draft deal is “in the national interest” and to reject it would take the country back to “square one.”
But only a handful of Conservative MPs spoke up in support, and May was met with fierce opposition from the Labour Party, from Brexiteer MPs within her own party and from her Northern Irish backers, the Democratic Unionist Party. Leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg formally called for her to “step aside.”
The prime minister now faces yet another battle for her own political survival as well as a fight to push her deal through the House of Commons, which must approve the agreement before she can formally commit to it in Brussels.
May faces two immediate threats: the possibility of a leadership challenge from within her own party, which could be triggered if 48 Conservative MPs are prepared to declare they no longer have confidence in the prime minister, and the MPs’ vote on the deal. With opposition on all sides increasingly vocal, May is under the most sustained pressure of her premiership. And Britain is now in a period of intense uncertainty, with no clear precedent for what happens next in the event that the prime minister cannot retain enough support to drive her Brexit plan through.
The British pound, which had strengthened on news of the deal and Cabinet support on Wednesday, dropped again following Raab’s resignation, reflecting increasing concerns the U.K. could crash out of the EU with no deal at all in March 2019 and exact a high economic toll for the U.K.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the European Research Group, an organizing committee of Brexiteer MPs, accused the prime minister of breaking her promises on Brexit and asked her to give him a reason not to formally call for a leadership challenge within the Conservative Party.
An hour later, Rees-Mogg told a meeting of the ERG in Westminster that he would be writing to Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee of Tory MPs, who under Conservative Party rules must call a leadership contest if 48 MPs write to him expressing no confidence in May.
In his letter to Brady, Rees-Mogg said it is in the national interest for May to stand aside.
“The draft withdrawal agreement presented to parliament today has turned out to be worse than anticipated and fails to meet the promises given to the nation by the prime minister, either on her own account or on behalf of us all in the Conservative Party Manifesto,” he wrote.
Rees-Mogg commands the support of dozens of MPs as part of the pro-Brexit ERG faction and his threat may be seen as an instruction for others to also write to Brady and trigger a contest.
The ERG’s deputy chairman, Steve Baker, said in a statement: “We’ve tried everything to change policy but not the Prime Minister but it has not worked. It is too late. We need a new leader.”
May was told by another Brexiteer MP, Mark Francois, that it looked “mathematically impossible” for her to get her draft deal through the House of Commons. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made clear his party would not support it, Brexiteer Conservatives seem ranged against it, and Northern Ireland’s DUP now seems set to reject it.
The Northern Irish party’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds, in cutting criticism, said it would be a “waste of time” to explain his objections “since she clearly doesn’t listen.”
Anger at the deal among Conservative Euroskeptics and the DUP centers on a plan to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland regardless of the outcome of the future trade negotiation.
The so-called backstop arrangement, which May insisted neither she nor the EU want to see come into force, would see the U.K. remain in a de facto customs union, with Northern Ireland continuing to operate under some single market regulations, and therefore under different rules to the U.K. in some sectors.
May appeared to pin her hopes of persuading MPs to back the deal on the promise that the backstop will never be required and that the permanent future relationship between the U.K. and the EU would meet her previous pledges to “take back control” of the U.K.’s borders, laws and spending, while protecting the union and securing “frictionless trade” with the EU.
My deal or no deal
Despite intense pressure, May showed no sign of changing course. During her Commons statement, she ruled out extending the Article 50 negotiating period, or calling for a second referendum. Facing calls from several Labour MPs and from former Remain-supporting MPs in her own party to back another vote, May said she does not want to follow other EU members who she said had ignored the wishes of their voters in previous referendums.
May said there would shortly be “more detail” for MPs on the future relationship.
“I’ve seen on other European issues … other member states of the European Union taking matters back to their populace, having a referendum, the vote has come out against what the EU wanted and effectively there has then been a second vote, a sort of ‘go back and think again’ vote. I don’t think it’s right that we should do that in this country,” she said.
U.K. officials said that the second document published Tuesday, a political statement rather than a legally binding treaty, which outlines both sides’ intentions for the future relationship, was not the final text and that a more detailed document would be agreed in the run-up to a special European Council summit on November 25. May said there would shortly be “more detail” for MPs on the future relationship.
Both former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and former Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey, who both resigned this morning, cited what they called a threat to the union in their resignation letters. Two junior ministers — Brexit Minister Suella Braverman and Northern Ireland Minister Shailesh Vara — also resigned, as did parliamentary private secretaries Anne-Marie Trevelyan and Ranil Jayawardena.
Tom McTague and Annabelle Dickson contributed reporting.